Friday, December 7, 2007

Collateral Damage

The Diatagon barangay gymnasium is a large wood and concrete structure located right smack in the middle of the barangay's commercial area and adjacent to its public market. On a typical, normal day, it is usually deserted except for bystanders watching the occasional basketball game played by youngsters playing hooky from school.

Yesterday morning I was there and what I saw was a dark, stiflingly hot and crowded beehive of activity and the whole building resembled many of those abandoned and dilapidated structures one sees in city slums occupied by derelicts and the homeless. The pictures speak for themselves.

For the gym is now the temporary shelter for the at least two thousand people (some 200 families) displaced by the on-going military operations and violent clashes between government troops and New People's Army guerrillas in the hinterlands of Diatagon where many so called lumad (indigenous cultural minorities) communities and settlements exist. Two other evacuation centers are located in the barangays of Buhisan and Janipaan in the neighboring municipality of San Agustin.

Feeding and looking after the health needs of the evacuees, most of them women and children, have become the responsibility of the Philippine Red Cross, the Lianga municipal government and other aid agencies. But the longer the current situation persists, that task may become more and more difficult especially if more evacuees may be coming to seek refuge. Health officials here also fear that the lack of proper sanitation facilities and the crowded conditions at the barangay gym may lead to the outbreak and spread of communicable diseases.

On the other hand, military authorities here have taken pains to point out that the on-going offensive in the Diatagon area is a legitimate operation designed to flush out communist rebels from their local strongholds and seize control of those areas previously controlled by them. Thus, according to them, the actual targets are not the residents of the lumad communities but only NPA insurgents hiding and taking refuge within them. They have also denied charges by local human rights groups that their soldiers committed human rights abuses and have harassed and intimidated residents and forced them to evacuate their homes and seek refuge in evacuation centers.

As the charges and countercharges fly back and forth, one interesting accusation made by some tribal and lumad organizations remains unanswered. They have accused the local military of being unwittingly used by mining and logging interests close to local politicians to ensure that they obtain a monopoly on mining and logging concessions in many areas claimed by the indigenous people as part of their ancestral domains. These supposedly mineral and timber rich territories fall mostly within the areas influenced and controlled by the NPA and have been said to be major sources of revenue for the insurgents.

These tribal organizations have ask the government and military to undertake more dialogues and consultations with tribal and lumad leaders in order to settle these contentious issues and quell social unrest in the tribal communities that according to them is one reason why many residents in these communities are sympathetic to the communist insurgents who have consistently promised to fight for the rights of cultural minorities over their ancestral lands.

Whatever is the truth or truths behind the rather chaotic situation in the Diatagon area, there is a an urgent need for the government and the military not only to resolve soon the ongoing conflict there and attempt to restore some degree of normalcy to the local peace and order situation but to be more transparent and forthcoming with the rationale and the objectives of the military operations being currently undertaken. There is also a need for them to coordinate more closely with each other and the civilian populace so as to minimize the so called "collateral damage" and insure that the negative effects of such operations on affected communities are immediately addressed and mitigated.

Overall success by government forces in the current Diatagon conflict involves more than tactical victories in the field or superior body count. It is always about total pacification and the "winning of the hearts and minds". And from where I sit, the military and the government may claim they are winning the battles - and with their superior numbers and better equipment they should be - but they are not certainly winning the sympathies and good will of the people they are supposed fighting for.

It is the same old story about winning battles and yet facing the possibility of losing the war. And after decades of fighting a tenacious and resilient insurgency, and learning by bitter experience what works and what does not, it is both tragic and disastrous that, based on what is happening in Diatagon, this is the one lesson the government and the military here has not really learned or taken to heart.

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